Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Neuroscience of Jazz

by Stuart Isacoff

Wall Street Journal
September 4, 2010

Among the young lions of jazz piano, Indian- American artist Vijay Iyer is a standout. He is perpetually on "best of" lists, most recently as the recipient of the Jazz Journalists Association 2010 award for Musician of the Year (an honor previously given to Herbie Hancock, Ornette Coleman and Wayne Shorter). His 2009 recording, "Historicity," was chosen as the No. 1 jazz album by myriad critics in the U.S. and in Europe. And his newest effort, "Solo," released last week, is already garnering raves. He'll be celebrating with a performance at (Le) Poisson Rouge, New York's Greenwich Village music club, on Sept. 10.

But that's only the most visible part of his career. During the '90s, while Mr. Iyer was cultivating his artistic voice at late-night gigs, his daylight hours were spent working as a physics major at the University of California at Berkeley, where he produced a doctoral thesis that focused on "the role of the body in music perception and cognition"—that is, the part played by bodily experience in the comprehension of music. The two spheres may seem worlds apart. Yet, speaking of his two lives, the pianist reveals that in some ways, each was made possible by the other.

For example, his individuality at the keyboard has much to do with the sheer physicality of his approach, which he traces to a major influence, Thelonious Monk. That late pianist's assertive style, filled with quirky dissonances, craggy rhythms, and oddly tangible moments of silence (it was once described by Monk's wife, Nellie, as "melodious thunk"), brings to mind what avant-garde improviser Cecil Taylor said of another jazz performer, Horace Silver. Mr. Taylor admired Mr. Silver's playing, he said, because of "the filth of it," the "movement in the attack."

"When I first started checking recordings out of my local library," remembers Mr. Iyer, "and I heard Monk, I found something there that I could really relate to. His perspective was very physical and intuitive, but also logical and rigorous—and insistent in its rigor. I've always been inspired by the percussive school of pianism—to artists like [Duke] Ellington and Monk, who exhibit ferocity, sparseness and elegance. Then the documentary film about Monk, 'Straight, No Chaser,' came out. And seeing him in action made me understand—it's been said before—that you haven't heard Monk until you've seen him. The full impact of his art hit me like a lightning bolt. It was so vivid and intense."


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